Rob Hemphill just opened National Sports Memorabilia in the Petaluma Village Outlets, but his business has been thriving in the Bay Area for 29 years. He’s worked with superstars like John Elway, Dan Marino, Joe Namath, Pete Rose and Muhammad Ali to supply fans with autographs and memorabilia. He still works with Joe Montana Jerry Rice, Derek Carr and Fred Biletnikoff among others.
Everything started when Hemphill went to a baseball card show in 1988; his mother had just found his old card collection in the attic.
While at the show, Hemphill saw an opportunity. The baseball market was flooded with cards and autographed baseballs, but football, with its growing popularity, barely had a market at all.
“I saw there really wasn’t a right type of football to sign out there,” Hemphill recalled.
So in 1990, he created the white panel football — footballs made with a section as white as paper to enhance autographs — with Wilson sports. He also landed his first big-name business partner, Jerry Rice.
Hemphill continues to work with some of the biggest names in sports. He’s already brought Raider greats Willie Brown and Cliff Branch to the outlet mall for live autograph signings, and he plans to bring more stars to town.
Hemphill first contacted Rice, the former San Francisco 49er who was a huge star in 1990, through old-fashioned networking. His business associate was a close friend of Rice. Another fresh idea from Hemphill helped, too.
“Instead of having to go to the public show, because a lot of people all over the country can’t travel to go see Jerry Rice, people can send in their items to me at the warehouse,” Hemphill said. “We’ll tag them up and get them autographed by Jerry, or people can order the merchandise from us and we’ll get it autographed.”
Hemphill called it a private signing and the term stuck industry wide.
For the first private signings, Rice would sign about 3,500 autographs, many of them on the new white panel football from Wilson. Called the “Robby” football, it was named, of course, after Hemphill.
The Robby, along with another first by Hemphill, working with Wilson to mass produce replica Super Bowl footballs, solidified Hemphill’s business. Known nationally as National Sports Distributors, the company started to ship memorabilia across the country.
He’s also created the white panel NBA basketball and the mini NBA basketball with Spalding, and an autograph-friendly boxing glove with Everlast.
Hemphill repairs flat autographed footballs, too. He said it took him 200 tries to learn the proper technique. Wilson, the sporting goods giant, sends its customers Hemphill’s way.
“I’ve enjoyed making products that might be needed for the marketplace or refining things, and I enjoy the creativity,” Hemphill said. “You find a problem and you fix it, you know?”
When he worked with Muhammad Ali, the sensational boxing and pop-culture icon who was arguably the most significant sports figure of the 20th century, Hemphill’s creativity was on point.
His idea was for Ali to sign a ring-side bell; the kind that rings between rounds in boxing. He called the bell’s manufacturer, who happened to also make cowbells.
“He literally said, ‘I’ll go out to the barn and see what I have,’ ” said Hemphill, who made numerous phone calls to find the bell maker. In a few days, Hemphill received word the barn had enough parts for 250 bells. Hemphill took them all.